How Search Engines Can Manipulate Voting Decisions



A study published in Nature revealed the results of an experiment conducted via Facebook in November of 2010: displaying the word “VOTE” in users’ news feeds together with information on polling locations–and in some cases displaying the profiles of Facebook friends who had already reported voting–increased the likelihood of these users going offline to cast ballots. As Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society suggests, what happens if Facebook only shows the “VOTE” image to users affiliated with certain political parties? the ability structures at play behind candidate-related content have an extended history of influencing viewer opinion and being subject to regulation. However, the digital landscape is shifting at speeds that may outpace oversight, making it critical that voters understand the unseen systems influencing their behaviors.

In the case of search engines, online services like Google, Yahoo, and Bing help voters find information on political candidates. But how do they influence election results? Users scanning search query results click on links in fairly predictable patterns, giving special emphasis to results at the highest of the list and on the primary page. Companies spend billions of dollars on search optimization like the link building service at outreach monks to maximize these user behavior patterns and push their website pages to the highest of query results. This influences which link a user is presumably to click, which successively affects their beliefs and behaviors around products, topics, and issues. Considering the increasing number of individuals who address the net to realize information about candidates, it’s important to require into consideration how search engine outcomes can impact voter opinion and election results.

Robert Epstein and Ronald E. Roberston of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology sought to gauge how search engine manipulation can influence reader opinions in political campaigns. In their 2015 study “The Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) and Its Possible Impact on the Outcomes of Elections,” Epstein and Robertson study people within the U. S. and India to see which populations are most prone to being influenced during this way.


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The study’s findings include:

By manipulating search engine results to favor one candidate over another, voter preferences will be altered by 20 percent or more.

Certain demographics are more susceptible to the search engine manipulation effect (SEME) than others. Though the particular demographic of voters prone to this effect varied in each of the five studies conducted by Epstein and Robertson, especially influenced by it were voters with little knowledge of the candidates or who, at the time of the study, were undecided in their political affiliation.

The transparency of search engine manipulation can vary in order that the user lacks awareness of how the search engine results impact their consumption and perspective on the content presented.

Even users who expressed awareness of search engine manipulation were still influenced by how the search results were presented to them.

According to the authors, it’s important to look at the facility of SEME on voter outcome and particularly to contemplate how its manipulation will be masked from the viewer and obscured from regulators. And the results “might interact synergistically with the method by which voter preferences affect search rankings, thus creating a kind of digital event” when search engines favor certain results over others. As more voters intercommunicate the net as their sole provider of reports and current events, those companies hold large amounts of unregulated power that might determine election outcomes, especially since many folks use search engines provided by a singular corporate entity. “What could pose a major threat to the democratic system of state are unregulated election-related search rankings,” the authors conclude.